Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Gifts We Bring to the Manger - Christmas Eve 08

For better or worse, giving gifts is a part of Christmas.  We can protest all we like about the commercialization of Christmas, but gift-giving has been a part of Christmas since the magi brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ Child.


Our carols celebrate the giving of gifts.  The little drummer boy brought his drum – pah rum pa pum pum.  And compared to the gifts listed in the “Twelve Days of Christmas”, most of our Christmas gift lists look fairly modest. Can you get "seven lords a-leaping" at Target? Can I put "eight maids a-milking" on layway?


But probably the best reflection on gift-giving is Christina Rosetti's "In the bleak midwinter", poem which concludes,


If I were a shepherd

I would bring a lamb

If I were a wise man

I would do my part

What I have I give him

Give my heart.


The Bible tells us of two groups that came to see the child in the manger ‑‑ the shepherds and the magi.  Although we know only of the gifts of the magi, I believe that both groups brought gifts.


From the East, probably the kingdom of Persia, came magi.  We say there were three of them and they were kings, but this is mere speculation.  There were three gifts, so we assume there were three magi, and the gifts were rare and costly, so we assume the magi were of royal blood. 


The other group, the first to worship God made flesh, were shepherds.  Though poor, they, too, brought something.  They had been surprised and overcome with the heavenly host singing God's praises.  They rushed to see "this thing that has happened that the Lord has made known to us".  And the text tells us that they left the stable "glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard".


What the shepherds brought to the manger and took away from the manger were hearts full of joy and wonder.


So, St. Luke and St. Matthew's Christmas stories tell us that the wise and simple, the wealthy and the poor, came to the manger, and each brought something precious:  The magi their riches ‑‑ the shepherds their wondering hearts. 


Like the magi and the shepherds we are invited to the manger.  We are invited to join the circle around the manger, with Mary and Joseph and wise men from Persia and poor shepherds from nearby fields.


What will you bring to the manger?


Some of us will bring rich gifts.  This church is a great gift that the people of this community have built and maintained through the years that bears permanent witness to God's truth and love.  The generosity we have shown to the poor in our own community and throughout the world through our contributions to the diocese and national church are even more important gifts.  God accepts such gifts and blesses them.


Others, I hope most of us, bring such hearts as the shepherds had, full of joy and wonder.  Perhaps children's hearts are more likely to be like the shepherds.  Those of us who have grown up (at least, those of us who are supposed to have grown up) have so many things on our minds and hearts, that sadly there is less room for joy and wonder than there once was.  Yet, it is often said that at this season all of us in some way become children once again.  God certainly accepts and blesses those who bring joy and wonder to the manger.


But maybe there are those who have neither rich gifts nor hearts full of joy and wonder to bring to the manger.  Or could there be something you and I bring to the manger along with our riches and joy and wonder?


The author Brian Ragen relates how his father would tell him of how he grew up in bitter poverty.  Ragen's father would tell his son that his family was so poor that the only toy he had to play with was a broken Matchbox car.  His family was Roman Catholic and Christmas Eve in their parish church was celebrated with great pomp and ceremony.  It was the custom in Ragen's father's church for the people of the parish to bring gifts for the Christ child and place them at the creche in the back of the church.  People would bring beautiful chalices for the altar; clothes for the poor; and envelopes full of money.  Ragen wrote, "On Christmas morning it seemed as though the baby Jesus had been visited by many caravans of wise men, and [my father] wanted very much to give the Christchild a present".


But he was poor, so what could he give Jesus?  Then, he realized what he must give Jesus:  his broken Matchbox car.  On Christmas Eve he went to church with his family, genuflected before the altar, and placed his broken Matchbox car amid the treasures around the Christchild's manger.


An usher took a final look at the creche before the mass began, noticed the car, and said, "Who would leave a piece of trash like this at Our Lord's crib?"  The usher picked up the car and threw it across the church.  Then, Ragen's father would tell his son, the baby Jesus came to life and crawled across the floor of the church to the corner where the car lay, tucked it under his arm, and crawled back to his creche where his arms were folded tightly around the broken toy car. 


The story, of course, was a charming fable that Brian Ragen's father made up to entertain and instruct his son.  The reality of his father's life was much darker and more violent.


Ragen went on to say that his father was abusive.  He was an alcoholic, and when sober was "a mean, foul‑mouthed terror".  He would often go with his father to confession on Saturday, and says that he "hated the idea that the ogre who darkened my life would be forgiven ‑‑ and so easily, too".


Then, years later, Ragen figured out the meaning of his father's Christmas story. 


"I realize that I cast him in the wrong role.  My father was, indeed, not the good little boy who gave his last plaything to the Christchild.  My father was the smashed Matchbox car with a couple of wheels missing.  He had failed in his public life... his family considered him an enemy....  He was a wreck.  But despite ‑‑ or because of ‑‑ all this, he longed to be cradled in his Savior's arms, to have him still seek him after he had been rejected by everybody else.  And in the end, perhaps he was like the good little boy after all:  he kept dragging himself to church and laying that sorry offering to his God, trusting that it would not be refused."  (Brian Ragen, "The Baby Jesus and the Angel of Light", The Christian Century, Dec. 13, 1995.)


The circle around the manger is wide, indeed, it is infinite.  So, come with the wise men and shepherds to the manger; bring your riches, bring your glad, full, and joyous hearts.  But also bring your brokenness, your sadness, your failures and let Jesus hold them in his hands next to his heart full of love where what is missing or broken in our lives and hearts may be mended and healed.  In the circle around the manger sins are forgiven, and life can start all over again.  

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Kingdom of Love - Christ the King, Year A - Nov. 23, 2008

“Christ is the King, O friends upraise anthems of joy and holy praise…” Thus begins a wonderful hymn by Bishop G.K.A. Bell of Chichester, England. “King” is a favorite title of Christ employed in many Christian hymns. We sing, “Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne” or “The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now”. And on the last Sunday in Pentecost we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, when in addition to singing about Christ the King, we have to start thinking about what it really means to say that Jesus of Nazareth is king, and that can give us pause.

After the American Revolution there were many who wanted Washington to be declared king, a movement that fortunately failed. But Washington’s vice president, John Adams, suggested that the president be addressed as “his Majesty”; Washington preferred “Mr. President” which has stuck with us to this day. When the portly Adams himself was elected president, they referred to him behind his back as “His Rotundity”.

Kings and queens have mostly disappeared from modern, western countries. Oh sure, we hear a great deal about the “woes of the Windsors”, the British royal family, and it often makes for entertaining reading. But where there are kings and queens, they are usually figureheads, useful for making inspiring remarks and opening shopping centers, but having little real power. We are more comfortable, or at least familiar, with presidents and prime ministers.

However, there remains a fascination with kingship. I share it myself and that’s why I stood for hours on the street in London in 1986 and watched the wedding procession for Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson go from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey and back again. However my most vivid memory from that experience was the day before the wedding, when the Marxists were out on the streets of Oxford selling copies of their newspaper, the headline of which read, “Parasite marries scrounger.”

British journalist Katharine Whitehorn attributes our fascination with kings to the popularity of fairy tales. “Whoever heard,” she asked, “of someone kissing a frog and it turning into a handsome senator?” President Jesus" just doesn't have the same ring as "King Jesus". A trendy, leftist minister once referred to Jesus as "Chairman Jesus", but that won't quite do either. Like it or not, we are stuck with King Jesus. So, on this Christ the King Sunday we are given the salutary reminder that we are subjects of a leader for whom we did not cast a vote; rather we are the subjects an absolute monarch whom we did not choose. Scary? The words “absolute monarch” bring to mind images of dungeons and royal thugs. But keep this in mind: Although we did not choose this King, he chose us. There is one law in this Kingdom and one banner waves in its skies: the law and the banner of love.

But more disturbing than the idea of kingship is the way King Jesus exercises his rule in the parable of the sheep and goats. “The king will say to those at his right hand… ‘I was hungry and you gave me food’… [but] he will say to those at his left hand, …’I was hungry and you gave me no food…’” The righteous sheep are told that they will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”, but the “accursed” goats are told to “depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”.

Applied literally and unimaginatively, this parable would seem to say that we are to give food, drink, and hospitality to everyone who asks. To deny to serve the needs of even one hungry and homeless person would seem to be justification for being sent into eternal torment.

However, note the way the king speaks and the way the sheep and the goats answer him. The king says, “I was hungry, and you gave me food.” And both the righteous sheep and the “accursed” goats reply, “When was it that we saw you hungry?” The king asks in the singular, but both the sheep and the goats reply in the plural.

We are not expected to do the work of feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, visiting the imprisoned, or healing the sick alone. We are expected to belong to communities that will exercise compassion and mercy. Does this excuse us from individual responsibility? Not necessarily; the community acts through its members, as well as corporately. Unfortunately, not only have all of us, time and time again, passed by the hungry and homeless on the streets, our churches are usually more concerned with maintenance than with mission.

Our budgets and check books are good barometers of our spiritual lives. What percentage of our money do we spend on ourselves and our family and what percentage do we give to the hungry and homeless? We need to examine our your church budgets, too. The great majority of churches that I know anything about give a small fraction of their money to the poor. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory” what will he have to say to us and to our churches? Christ the King Sunday is an invitation to us individually and corporately to let Christ reign in our hearts and lives by serving him in the person of the poor.

An Alabama Episcopalian who lived out the spirit of the parable of the sheep and the goats as well as anyone I’ve ever heard of was Augusta Bening Martin. In the 1920 and 30s Martin ran a mission to the poor whites on Sand Mountain that was sponsored by the Episcopal Church. She wrote regular reports of her ministry to the diocesan newspaper. In one report she reported finding a family of five – a mother and four children - in unspeakable conditions: “…the family had lived for weeks on ears of corn and a few fish and squirrels. The children slept on piles of grass, covered with sacks and rags. . . . All were emaciated. The children had never tasted cow’s milk, had never been to school, had never seen the American flag, had never heard of Christ, and knew God’s name only as part of an oath. . . ." The court committed the family to Martin, who provided them with housing, food, clothing, medicine, and other necessities. The children had their first bath and said their first prayer the evening they were committed Martin.

We think of power and glory in terms of self-aggrandizement, but the parable of the sheep and the goats reverses our expectations. The king who separates the sheep and the goats lifts up those who choose service over self.

In the dark days of Stalin’s rule, British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge worked for the British newspaper, the Guardian, as a correspondent. Muggeridge went to Moscow fascinated by and greatly enamored with the young Soviet Union, but soon found himself deeply disillusioned. One day while walking in the woods outside of Moscow he came across a small church and noted that someone had given the church a fresh coat of bright, blue paint. Muggeridge writes that he felt that he ”belonged to the little disused church [the painter] had embellished, and that the Kremlin with its scarlet flag and dark towers and golden spires was an alien kingdom. A kingdom of power such as the Devil had in his gift, and offered to Christ, to be declined by him in favour of the kingdom of love. I, too, must decline it, and live in the kingdom of love.” (Malcolm Muggeridge, Chronicles of Wasted Time, Vol. 1, The Green Stick (1972), pp. 226-227.)

We, too, are invited to live in the “kingdom of love”, to give to the hungry and homeless, not in order that we might sit among the sheep when the Son of Man comes in glory, but because the King (who is also the Good Shepherd) sought and found us when we were hurt and hungry and lost and alone.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Holy Bible, Book Divine - Proper 28A - Nov. 16, 2008

Holy Bible, Book divine,
Precious treasure, thou art mine:
Mine to tell me whence I came;
Mine to teach me what I am.

So we sang in Vacation Bible School right after the pledge to the Bible.

Today’s collect praises God "who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning" and asks for grace that we may "so ... hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them" to the end "that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life..."

However, what use can men and women at the beginning of the twentieth century make of a book that is between 1900 and 2500 years old? In what sense can we say that the Bible is true?

The Bible is a product of an age that believed that the earth was flat disk and that the sun orbited the earth. The writers of the Bible knew nothing of electricity or nuclear power, of penicillin or heart transplants, of air and space travel.

For some, the meaning and authority of the Bible were forever destroyed by Darwin's theory of evolution, and the controversy between creationists and evolutionists still rages. The state of Alabama's science textbooks contain an insert saying that evolution is just a theory.

Episcopalians still believe that the Bible is the word of God. When I was ordained deacon and priest I had to affirm that I believed "the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation", and I had to sign a declaration to that effect.

I do believe that, and I encourage you to believe the same. Yet, I am a person of my age. I believe that the world was created over a period of millions of years, not in six days. Psalm 19 tells us that God "has set a pavilion for the sun; it comes forth... like a champion to run its course", but I know that the sun does not revolve around the earth but the earth around the sun.

Even more problematically, I know that the Bible was used very effectively to justify slavery. The Bible urges slaves to obey their masters (Eph. 6.5). Women are sometimes urged to remain in abusive relationships because Paul wrote, "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord." (Eph. 5.21)

Furthermore, the Bible does not speak with a single voice about divorce. The Bible reports two conflicting statements of Jesus regarding divorce. In Mark Jesus forbids divorce and remarriage completely; in Matthew he permits divorce in cases of adultery.

So, what sense can we make of the Prayer Book's claim that the Bible is God's word and contains "all things necessary to salvation"?

I want to make three points about the Bible:

First, there are different kinds of truth. There are mathematical truths such as two plus two equals four. These are very useful truths and seem to be universal. But there are also truths that are equally true and universal but can only be communicated symbolically and metaphorically. They cannot be verified in the same way that a mathematical equation can be verified.

There are works of fiction that accurately mirror human life, event though they are not "true" in the same way that a mathematical equation is true. For example, Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist presents a true picture of the horrors of early industrialization and urbanization in England, even though there was no such boy as Oliver Twist in "real life".

When Jesus said, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead", we need not suppose that Jesus is telling us of a real man whom he knew. The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us something that is true about human life.

Similarly, the Books of Job and Jonah are more than likely extended parables, different from the parables of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan only in their length. Yet, Job and Jonah present a picture of human life that rings true.

The opening chapters of Genesis are more problematic. In my opinion, they are myth. The events of Genesis 1-11 tell us of events that no human being could have witnessed: the creation of the sun and moon, the forming of the earth, the origin of all plants and animals and human beings. Yet, the stories of Genesis are profoundly true. They tell us of God's care and love and that God's judgment on creation and on human life is that it is very good indeed. Indeed, the stories of Genesis tell us something that can only be communicated in story, parable, and myth. Some truths can only be communicated in poetry; prose will not do.

On the other hand, the account of the reigns of David and Solomon in Jerusalem plainly rely upon accounts of eyewitnesses. I would also argue that the gospels, too, must rely upon eyewitness accounts. Although an historian reading 1 and 2 Kings and the gospels might question the accuracy of some details, no responsible historian would say that David or Jesus never existed.

Secondly, there are existential truths. These are truths that we cannot know until we engage with them. Sometimes we have to stake our lives on them to find out if they are true. A simple example of existential truth is when a man says to his wife, "You are the light of my life". She cannot know whether or not he is telling the truth without entering into a relationship with him.

Similarly, if we just read the Bible as a story or textbook, we will not fully appreciate its truth, but if we engage with it, if we risk our lives upon its truth, then we will find it to be a solid foundation upon which to live our lives. If we take up our cross and follow Christ, we will find that he is the Lord and Savior of the world. If we deny ourselves, and give sacrificially, then we will find that God abundantly meets our needs. If we read the Bible carefully and faithfully do what the Bible tells us to do, then we will find that it mirrors the real world, even when we are reading Genesis or Job or Jonah or the parables of Jesus. If we are faithful to the Bible and the God revealed in the Bible then our lives will make sense and our lives will make much more sense than if we tried to live our lives without the Bible's guidance.

And that is the kind of truth we can only know by experience. It is a kind of truth that we cannot know just intellectually or abstractly. It requires personal engagement, risk.

Third, the Bible is a living document because through it the voice of the living God speaks. This last point is the most difficult to convey. To say that the Bible is a living document seems to suggest that it says one thing today and another thing tomorrow. That is not quite what I mean. The Bible does not change; God does not change, but we do. And because our situation changes, we need different messages from the Bible. Our view of what the Bible says about women and slavery has changed completely, and yet the underlying message of the Bible is the same.
Harry Emerson Fosdick put it well: “Astronomies change but the stars abide is a true analogy of every realm of human life and thought, religion not least of all. No theology can be a final formulatin of spiritual truth."
So is the Bible true? Is it true that if we "hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest" the Bible that we will have "the blessed hope of everlasting life"? Yes, absolutely, without question.

Finally, I would say that if we are reading the Bible faithfully, then it will not only comfort us, sometimes it will also disturb us. Mark Twain said, "I'm not bothered by the things I don't understand in the Bible; its the things I do understand that bother me."

For the Bible says not only, "Come unto me, all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you"; it also says, "Depart from me, you cursed... for I was hungry and you gave me no food..."

Father of mercies, in Thy word
What endless glory shines!
For ever be Thy name adored
For these celestial lines,

Here may the blind and hungry come,
And light and food receive;
Here shall the lowliest guest have room,
And taste and see and live,


Here the Redeemer's welcome voice
Spreads heavenly peace around;
And life and everlasting joys
Attend the blissful sound,


Divine instructor, gracious Lord,
Be Thou for ever near;
Teach me to love Thy sacred word,
And view my Saviour there.

Anne Steele, 1717-78.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The View from Mount Nebo

J. Barry Vaughn. St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, AL. Oct. 26, 2008. Text: Deut. 34.1-12.

One of the stock situations in the Peanuts comic strip was Lucy’s offer to hold the football for Charlie Brown to kick. He was always reluctant to accept the offer because she invariably pulled it away just as his foot was about to connect with the ball, and he always landed on his backside. However, somehow she always persuaded him that this time she really meant it, but he always ended up flat on his back.

We might almost think that God is a little like Lucy. God promised Abraham and Sarah a land to call their own and children as numerous as the stars in the night sky. They waited for years and finally one child was born to them. But just as soon as Isaac born, God demanded that he be offered as a sacrifice. Then when Abraham and Sarah died, the only land they owned was their burial place. “C’mon, Charlie Brown. Kick the ball. I’ll hold it for you.”

When Abraham’s descendants found themselves enslaved in Egypt, God brought them out with signs and wonders, but they wondered if God had just brought them out into the wilderness to let them starve there. So God let them wander and wander and wander… ten years… twenty years… thirty years… The generation that left Egypt died still wondering if God was going to keep his promise of bringing them into a land of milk and honey.. “I really mean it this time, Charlie Brown. Kick the ball.”

And in today’s reading God brings Moses to the top of Mt. Nebo overlooking the promised land. “….the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, 2all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea,3the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4The Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes…”’” At last, the promise was going to be fulfilled. Moses was as close to the Promised Land as Sarah Palin was to Russia; he could see it with his own eyes. Then – bang! – God pulled the football away and Moses ended up flat on his back just like Charlie Brown. “…you shall not cross over there.”

Everyone of us has a Promised Land, a goal, something we have sought and longed and worked for. Sometimes it’s marriage; sometimes it’s a job or a career; sometimes it’s something as basic as physical health. Sometimes we achieve it; sometimes all we can do is look longingly at it as Moses looked at Canaan from the top of Mt. Nebo.

The story from Deuteronomy tells me two things: First, it tells me that no matter how hard we work, the achievement of our goals is God’s gift. Now, make no mistake: we have to show up, do the work, and put in the hours. But we all know deserving people who have worked every day of their life to get to the Promised Land and haven’t made it. They are good people; they should have been successful but things just didn’t work out.

And that’s the second thing I take away from the text: sometimes no matter how hard we try, we just won’t get to the Promised Land. Sometimes all we can do is enjoy the view from Mt. Nebo.

Two distinguished, honorable, intelligent, and capable men are seeking to become President of the United States, and in a week one of them will be elected and the other will not. Someone once said that there are no second acts in American public life. That’s not quite true, but more than likely the loser will not get a second chance to try for the Oval Office. All he will be able to do is to watch as the other takes the oath office and becomes the most powerful man in the world. The view from Mt. Nebo is beautiful but it can also be tormenting.

There’s a further lesson that I take away from the Old Testament reading: There’s always a Promised Land further down the road, a goal we will not achieve. In every life there is incomplete and unfinished business. No one looks back over his or her life and says, “I achieved everything I set out to do. I have everything I wanted.”

So how do we live with the tension between promise and fulfillment? What can we do if we know that we can enjoy the view from Mt. Nebo but will never make to the Promised Land?

First, we can resolve every day of our life to enjoy the journey. We do not know exactly where the journey will take us, nor do we know how long the journey will take. But we will find if we are attentive that every step of the way can be meaningful. At every moment there are opportunities to serve. And if all we are doing is looking for the vista from Mt. Nebo, then we will miss the less spectacular but equally beautiful sights along the way.

We can also appreciate the people who are making the journey with us. We can remember that they, too, have goals that they will not realize, that they, too, may only get to enjoy the view from Mt. Nebo, that they need us and we need them.

We can also remember that our goals may not be God’s goals, that our purpose may not be to get to the Promised Land but to enable someone else to get there. Today’s Old Testament reading also tells us that Moses laid hands on Joshua, that is, he transferred his power and authority to Joshua who then leads the Israelites into the Promised Land.

Perhaps the most famous use of this story about Moses on Mt. Nebo was in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s very last sermon. “I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life…. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” That was on April 3, 1968; the next day Dr. King was murdered.

King lived long enough to see the view from Mt. Nebo, to look over into the Promised Land. But perhaps God’s purpose for him was like God’s purpose for Moses and for many of us; God used King as he used Moses: to enable others to make it to the Promised Land.  Perhaps even Dr. King did not know all the ways that God would use his work.

During the coup by hardline Communists in the waning days of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s mayor, Boris Yeltsin, literally faced down tanks in the street in front of the parliament building. Someone asked Yeltsin what gave him the courage to face the tanks, and he said he had been inspired by Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement in Poland. When Walesa was asked what gave him the strength to organize Solidarity and defy the Soviets, he said that he had been inspired by Dr. King. And when Dr. King was asked what inspired his leadership of the civil rights’ movement, he said that he had been inspired by Rosa Parks’ defiance of segregation on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Could it be that the Soviet Union fell (at least in part) because a black seamstress refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery?

So, learn to appreciate the journey, cherish the people who are making the journey with you, accept the fact that you do not fully control your destiny, do not despair when you realize you will never achieve all that you seek to accomplish. And if you can do those things, then you may find that the Promised Land is not on the other side of Mt. Nebo but is right here and now. All we need to do is to open our eyes and look around.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Life before and after the comma - A sermon preached at the memorial service for deceased members of the Harvard College Class of 1978 - Oct. 11, 2008

Once more the alumni office and its minions have worked their magic. “Fair Harvard, we join in thy jubilee throng, and with blessings surrender thee o’er,” although our blessings are not what they were before the Dow dropped below 9,000.  Harvard welcomes back its scattered sons and daughters to enjoy its hospitality; to see old friends; make new ones; to laugh or cry or blush as we remember how impossibly young we were when Derek Bok was president of Harvard; Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter occupied the White House and Peter Gomes had a mustache. 

Once again the Yard is thrown open to us, and we can enjoy the haute cuisine of the Houses, the evening at the Pops, the pomp of graduation. No, that’s not right, is it? What’s wrong with this picture? This reunion is in the fall, not the spring; there’s no evening at the Pops; and we’ve been banished from the Yard. Something is different this time. We seem to have been demoted. It appears that once our 25th reunion passes we are no longer the darlings of the Alumni and Development offices. We are past our prime; over the hill; or (in the famous words of Tom Lehrer) “sliding down the razor blade of life.”

 But isn’t that simply a fact of life that we must all accept? Not all the botox, skin peels, knee and hip replacements, Rogaine, scalp plugs, gym memberships nor any of the infinite number of products guaranteed to restore youth or slow aging will long hide or delay the fact that “earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away. Change and decay in all around I see…” Or to borrow a song from that OTHER university: “we will pass and be forgotten like the rest.” 

And if we HAD forgotten any of those things, today’s solemn task would have reminded us. Amid the laughter and nostalgia, before the symposia and the football game, we pause to remember a Superior Court judge who also wrote book reviews for his local newspaper; a Rhodes Scholar who took time from his career as a lawyer to serve on numerous community boards; a computer scientist whose love of flying led him to develop cutting edge software for the aviation industry; and each of the others – a husband, wife, or partner; father or mother; sister or brother; whose passing leaves an emptiness and grief that, in time, will become less painful but will never completely heal. 

This memorial service inserts a note of reality into our reunion festivities. It puts a comma between the visit to classmate Governor Deval Patrick at the Statehouse and the symposium featuring classmate Governor Deval Patrick following the service. Without this pause, this comma, if you will, we would rush through our reunion and not remember the classmates who have gone before us. More importantly, we might not stop to think that one day our names, too, will be read out at this service.

 Punctuation is as important in life as it is in the written word. We all enjoy the exclamation marks: weddings, the birth of a child, the achievement of partnership in the firm or tenure, making it to the top of the mountain (either literal or metaphorical). And we all endure the question marks: the death of  loved ones, the loss of a job, the end of a marriage or love not returned. But I’m inclined to believe that the comma is the most important punctuation mark in life’s story. It invites us to slow down, pay attention, look around, and perhaps re-orient ourselves.

 In the play Wit elderly English professor, Evelyn Ashford, underscores the importance of punctuation when she criticizes her student Vivian, the play’s central character, for having used a poorly edited version of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets as the basis for an essay. “The last line should read, ‘Death’ comma ‘thou shalt die.’ Only a comma separates life and life everlasting.”

 On this day and in this place we may all be wondering if Dr. Ashford was correct. Is death a comma or a period? And if it is a comma, what comes after? Surely religion has the answer, because, after all, isn’t religion mostly concerned with what happens after the comma, with “life everlasting” rather than life in this world? 

In my opinion, that is the most common mistake that people make about religion – to believe that it is more concerned with what happens after the comma than with what happens before it, with life in the next world than with life in this world. 

We do well to remember and honor our classmates who have gone before us, who await us at the final reunion of the Class of 1978. But we do better to honor them by living our lives fully and energetically, by being as engaged in this world as possible.

 The following words, read at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, seem especially apt to me:


If I should die and leave you here awhile, 
Be not like others, sore undone, who keep 
Long vigils by the silent dust, and weep. 
For my sake - turn again to life and smile, 
Nerving thy heart and trembling hand to do 
Something to comfort other hearts than thine. 
Complete those dear unfinished tasks of mine 
And I, perchance, may therein comfort you.

 Think of these reunions as great punctuation marks, commas in our own personal narratives. They give us a chance to pause, remember, and reflect about who we were thirty years ago, about who and what we hoped we might become and perhaps, even who we still might be.

 In reading our Thirtieth Class Report I was struck frequently by the number of you who have already experienced life after death. I mean, how many of you have found that life goes on after the death of a parent, a spouse, or even a child; how many of you have found new love after divorce; how many have found a new and more meaningful career after the loss of a job or after your old career had grown stale and had become dull and tedious, and how often the new career involves giving a significant amount of your time, energy, and financial resources to a cause greater than yourselves: to helping the hungry and homeless or seeking solutions to the global environmental crisis.

 My religion has a name for the new life that begins when the old one has died: we call it resurrection. Resurrection can happen any time. The only prerequisite is that first we must die. The death may be literal or it may be one of the thousand ways that we die throughout our lives.

 Perhaps we would fear death less if we made its acquaintance, if we realized that it visits us not once but many times, and that it is death that makes life infinitely precious. It is the very shortness and finitude of life that makes us cherish it and find it meaningful. Treasure every moment with the people you love because we are given such a small handful of them. Take full advantage of this reunion, this comma in life’s narrative. Laugh and perhaps even cry with old friends; make new ones; dive headlong into a pile of leaves in Harvard Yard.

 So, is death a comma rather than a period? Does only a comma separate life from life everlasting? I suspect that is a question we must each answer for ourselves. But I want to suggest that you will find the answer (or find that the question becomes irrelevant) if you follow poet Wendell Berry’s advice and begin right now to “practice resurrection:”

 every day do something

that won't compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

 In one of his parables, Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard points out that a student is allotted only so much time to complete an exam and whether she uses every minute of the test period or just a small fraction of the time, it makes no difference as long as she is finished before the time expires. But what if life itself is the test? If that is the case, then it would be tragic indeed to be finished with life before life is finished with us.

 But life is not finished with any of us. Whether you believe that only a comma separates life from life everlasting or that death is (as the British say) a “full stop”, we have all the time we need to lead a full and meaningful life. And the forty-seven classmates who have gone before us would surely expect us to do no less than to take up their unfinished tasks, to complete our own unfinished business, to be joyful even though we have considered all the facts.  


Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Language of Heaven - St. Michael and All Angels - Sept. 29, 2008

Texts: Gen. 28.10-17 and Revelation 12.7-12.

When John and I were planning this service I asked him if he wanted it to include a sermon. He said, “Well, if you preach, it probably won’t be too tedious.” With encouragement like that, how could I not preach?

Actually, I was hoping that John would want me to preach this evening, both because it gives me an opportunity to say something about him, his extraordinary musical gifts, and his service to St. Alban’s, and also to say something about music.

However, tonight’s lessons are not about music and musicians but about angels. The collect tells us that God has “ordained and constituted in wonderful order the ministries of mortals and angels” and their function is to “serve and worship” God in heaven and to “help and defend” us on earth. The Old Testament reading is the marvelous and mysterious story of Jacob’s vision of the heavenly escalator upon which angels go to and from heaven and earth. And the New Testament reading is the even more enigmatic story from the Book of Revelation about the archangel Michael defeating Satan.

We know little about angels but from tonight’s collect and reading and also from other Biblical sources we know that angels are first and foremost messengers. Both the Hebrew malach and the Greek angellos mean “messenger” but we translate them as “angel.” Most of the time that angels appear in the Bible they are bearing messages: three angels appear to Abraham to tell him once again that he and Sarah will be the parents of a multitude. And of course, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce that she will give birth to Jesus.

Apparently, an important function of angels is also to be in some sense God’s “swat team,” leading the fight against evil and defending God’s people.

However, the single most important function of angels is to praise and worship God. Why, we might wonder, does God need or want the constant praise of angelic beings? But that, I think, is the wrong question. I think, rather, that angels, being by their very nature closer to God than we are, cannot help but praise God. Think of our reaction to the Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains. How beautiful and majestic we think as we see the sunset pour brilliant colors over the Grand Canyon or the mist that hides the peaks of the Rockies. How much more, then, must angels be overcome by the glory of God?

That, I believe, is why angels are so often portrayed holding and playing musical instruments. Praise invariably involves music because words fail us in the face of beauty of the highest order. Music can convey thoughts and feelings for which we have no words and music can give words power beyond their meaning.

Karl Barth, probably the greatest Christian theologian of the 20th century, was fascinated by both angels and music. A great fan of Mozart, Barth famously wrote that the angels sing Bach when they praise God but they play Mozart when they are playing for their own amusement. It is also said that toward the end of his life, Barth had his one and only mystical experience when he was attending a performance of some of Mozart’s music and saw the composer sitting on the stage and looking at him. Barth also made the enigmatic remark that Mozart must have been angel.

Why not? If angels are musicians, why can’t musicians be angels? Angels bring us God’s messages for our lives; so do musicians. How often as we listen to music have we felt that it was telling us something, that it communicated something about the majesty of God, about our own need for God, that it told us of the glory and wonder of life on earth, or that it moved us to tears with a message for which not only had no words but no coherent thoughts?

Remember, too, that angels quite often deliver messages that frighten. I think the choir would agree that John frequently delivers messages of that sort!

I don’t want to overstress the connection between angels and musicians, but I believe there is one. One of John Donne’s most famous prayers says that in heaven there is “neither noise nor silence but one equal music.” My personal opinion is that music is the language of heaven because music both orders and enhances our words and thoughts. Music also takes us out of ourselves and binds us together in community. That is obviously the case when we sing together, but I believe it is also the case when we listen to music. An audience or congregation listening to music are caught up together in a common experience.

The prayer for church musicians and artists in the Prayer Book tells us that it is the function of church musicians to “perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and beseeches God grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled.”

Tonight we give thanks not only for the ministries of angels but also for the ministry of John King Carter who has perfected our praises and given us glimpses of divine beauty. May you continue that ministry in your new parish, John.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The race to the bottom - Proper 21A - Sept 28, 2008

It would hardly come as a newsflash to point out that we are coming to the end of one of the longest presidential campaigns in U.S. history. I believe that senators McCain and Obama are both honorable and patriotic men who sincerely desire the best for their country. However, no one, especially in our time, can become president of the United States without possessing a degree of ambition that is almost unimaginable. The discipline of an Olympic athlete pales beside the discipline it takes to sit in the Oval Office. Furthermore, to become president one must be absolutely convinced that one is qualified to wield more power than any other single individual in the world and possibly more power than anyone else in human history. Finally, I also suspect that no one can become president without a degree of ruthlessness. I don’t necessarily mean that in a pejorative sense, but the pursuit of the presidency requires a willingness to put aside one’s own needs and often to put aside the needs even of one’s spouse and children. It requires a willingness to punish one’s enemies promptly and without sentimentality.

Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians tells us about another race, not a race to the top, but a race to the bottom. Paul tells us that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave [or servant]”. Paul outlines five steps in Jesus’ race” to the bottom: he emptied himself of his divine nature; he took human form; he became a slave or servant to others; he was crucified; and he died.

What a contrast to the presidential campaign! One is a race to the top and the other a race to the bottom. One is about having more and more power, and the other is about having less and less power. One is about seeking the highest office and the other is about seeking the lowest place in the universe – the grave. Don’t misunderstand me: we live in an imperfect world. We need officials, including presidents, monarchs, and prime ministers to order human affairs. The United States long ago decided that the office of president would be filled by someone elected to it for a four year term. In order to be elected, one must want to be elected and campaign for the office. And not even our greatest presidents have had unmixed and pure motives for seeking the presidency. But Christ bids us seek service rather than self-aggrandizement. He invites us to join him not in a race to the top but in a race to the bottom, a race to the place of greatest need.

The steps Paul outlines in Philippians are also the steps we have to take. First, Christ “emptied himself.”. We, too must empty ourselves. There are times when we must put the needs of others before our own, God’s priorities ahead of our own priorities. Now, because we are human and finite, we must also exercise good self-care. Without caring for ourselves, we would have nothing to give to others. But if we are attentive to God, then we will find that at times God calls on us to throw caution to the wind and in ways both large and small to give ourselves for others.

Second, Paul tells us that Christ took human form. We also have to get inside the skin and the minds of others – to learn to see the world from other points of view, to empathize with those different from ourselves. The world looks very different from the point of view of the developing world than it does in most of North America. If we are white, we would do well to imagine what it is like to be black in a majority white culture. Christians should occasionally stop and imagine the world through Jewish or Muslim eyes.

Third, Christ took the form of a servant. It sounds simple and it is simple to serve others. We do it every day. We prepare a meal for someone else; we even sometimes do the gracious thing and let the jerk in the approach lane cut in traffic ahead of us. But to be a real servant is to give up some of our power, our prestige, our place of honor. It is to step back and step down and let another have the higher place. It is to be willing to receive orders, rather than to give orders, and these are things I find very difficult to do and suspect you to, too.

Fourth, Christ embraced the cross. To understand what that meant in the first century, we must know that crucifixion was the most shameful form of death in the Roman world. The great Roman orator Cicero said, “Far be the cross from even the mention of a Roman or free-born person.” For us to embrace the cross is to embrace that thing, that place, that we find most disturbing, most difficult, even most shameful. Our cross might be our willingness to let others think less of us in order to save the reputation of another. It might be our willingness to tell the hard truth instead of the easy and face-saving lie.

Fifth and last, Paul tells us that Christ embraced death itself. We die not once but many times. We accept death when we refuse the job with more power and a higher salary because it will require moral compromises. We might die a bit when we reorder our financial priorities so that we can give more to the church and other worthy causes.

Winston Churchill once remarked that we make a living by what we get but we make a life by what we give. For Christ, life was less about having and more about giving. And that is the mind, the attitude, that Paul tells us we should all have.

In Sunday School last week I pointed out that the Roman world put the highest value on honor but that Christianity reversed Roman values by pu tting the highest value on humility. The cross was the most shameful form of death but Christianity put the cross in the very center of their faith. Christianity also seems to reverse the values of our world.

I have no quarrel with those who seek the presidency in order to serve the common good. It is a noble task, and I believe that some are called to it. But all of us are called to seek not the place of highest honor and greatest power but the place of least power and greatest humility. Because that is where we will also find the most profound meaning for our lives and the source of greatest satisfaction. That s where we will find God and the very power of Christ’s resurrection.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Life on this side of the comma (Proper 20A) Sept. 21, 2008

The play Wit is about a 40 some odd year old English professor who is dying of ovarian cancer. In one scene the play flashes back to her grad school days when her principal professor takes her to task for her analysis of a poem by John Donne based on an inferior edition. The older professor says, “It should read ‘Death, comma, thou shalt die.’ Only a comma separates life and life everlasting.”

A lot of people seem to have the idea that religion is mainly about life on the far side of the comma – life everlasting. But Jesus’ parables strongly suggest that religion is more concerned with what comes on this side of the comma, with life in this world rather than life in the next.

Jesus spoke of a merchant going about his business who was set upon by thieves and how a member of a despised minority rescued him. He spoke of a woman who scoured her house from top to bottom to find one of ten coins that had been lost. He spoke of a young man who demanded that he receive his inheritance from his father while the older man was still alive. He spoke of a shepherd who went after a single lost lamb, even though ninety nine were safely in the pen. And in today’s gospel reading Jesus speaks of three groups of workers who receive the same wages even though the first works all day, the second a half day, and the third only an hour.

Did you notice a common thread in all these parables? They all show an interest in and an awareness of the details of money, business, and commerce. The parable of the good Samaritan is about a merchant traveling along one of the principal routes of commerce in the ancient Near East – the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The woman in the parable of the lost coin had lost ten percent of her savings. The shepherd in the parable of the lost lamb seems to be making a foolish decision in putting 99 percent of his wealth at risk to search for one percent. The younger son in the parable of the prodigal son is invoking his inheritance rights as specified in the laws of Israel.

It almost seems too coincidental that the parable of the workers in the vineyard comes at the end of a week of economic news so bad that one could almost describe it as apocalyptic. What does Jesus have to say to us at the end of this week of meltdowns, bailouts, and bankruptcies?

First, I take comfort from the fact that Jesus displayed familiarity with the workings and details of finance and commerce. Make no mistake: Jesus took the side of the poor and blessed them. He told the wealthy and pious young man who sought everlasting life to sell all that he had and give the profits to the poor. He told us that the wealthy would find it as hard to enter heaven as a camel who tried pass through the eye of a needle. But he did not curse wealth or the wealthy; the well-to-do Joseph of Arimathea was one of Jesus’ disciples and provided a resting place for Jesus’ body. For Jesus wealth presented a spiritual problem but was in no sense a sin.

Second, today’s parable does not take sides. The point is not that the employer was unfair in giving less to the workers who worked all day than to those who worked only one hour. Nor is the point that the workers who worked only one hour took unfair advantage of the vineyard owner or of their fellow workers. The point of the parable is that God’s gifts do not get distributed evenhandedly, and that those who enjoy a greater share of the good things of this world are not more loved by God than those who enjoy a smaller share.

So, what message, if any, is there for us in this parable after this week’s extraordinary economic news?

I think there is both a message of comfort and a warning.

We can take comfort in the fact that no matter how late the workers showed up at the vineyard they were rewarded. God is generous and provides for the needs of his children. Furthermore, God gives us more than we deserve, although seldom as much as we desire.

However, in the last words of today’s gospel reading, as well as in the parable itself, there is a warning.

We do well to pray and sing “God bless America.” By and large, America has been a good global neighbor. The Marshall plan rebuilt America’s adversaries after World War II; NATO checked Soviet expansion; and the Peace Corps brought education and health care to isolated parts of the world.

But it would be a mistake to assume that America’s wealth is a sign that we are in some way God’s favorite or that we are being rewarded for being especially virtuous.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard tells us that, like the vineyard owner, God distributes his gifts without regard to deserving. In world terms, America is a young nation. We are, if you will, workers who have come at the end of the day but have been rewarded for a full day’s work.

What will tomorrow or next week or next year or the next century bring? Americans are a small percentage of the world’s population but enjoy a percentage of the world’s wealth far in excess of our numbers relative to the rest of the world. Perhaps tomorrow we will be the workers who work an entire day and receive no more pay than the workers who sign on at 5 pm.

The final words of today’s gospel reading sound a more ominous note: “the last will be first and the first will be last.” The 20th century was the American century but what will the 21st century bring? Will we be first or last or somewhere in between?

Pres. Reagan frequently described America as a “shining city on a hill” and I believe that in some sense that is true. He borrowed that image from Puritan leader John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” who, in turn, borrowed them from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the 5th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. But the words are more ambiguous than they seem. Jesus said, “A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” In other words, the city on a hill would be an example to others: an example for good if it succeeded or an example of failure if it did not succeed.

Winthrop linked the success of the Puritan settlement in New England (and by extension, all of American history) with Micah’s admonition to “love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly before God.”

"Now the only way to avoid… shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to [modify our own desires and needs], for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace… [God] shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, 'may the Lord make it like that of New England.' For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. "

Whether the stock market goes up or down, whether the 21st century is as much the American century as the 20th century was, whether our financial institutions succeed or fail are beside the point. We shall be the “shining city on the hill” if (as Winthrop said) we “uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality… delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”

I can do no better than conclude with the prayer for America by Katherine Bates, who also invokes the image of America as “a shining city on a hill:”

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.

America! America!
God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Forgiveness (Proper 19A) Sept. 14, 2008

It was the wrong question. It was also not the real question that Peter wanted to ask Jesus. What Peter really wanted to say was, “Lord, if someone gets on my wrong side, when can I let ‘em have it?” But Peter figured that Jesus wouldn’t respond too well to a question like that, so instead, he asked, “If a member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Thinking that he might win some extra points with Jesus for being patient and kind and forgiving, Peter set the bar high for putting up with all the mean and difficult people we have to deal with: “Shall I forgive as many as seven times?”

I am sure that Jesus knew the question that Peter was really asking and also knew that Peter thought that seven times was a lot of times to forgive anyone. His answer floored Peter and should floor us, if we really understand what Jesus is saying: “Peter, don’t just forgive seven times but seventy-seven times.” Jesus was NOT saying that there is a limit to forgiveness; rather he was saying, “Forgive until you have lost count how many times you have forgiven.”

Forgiveness may be the most difficult discipline of the Christian life. In his book Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis says, “I suddenly discovered today that I had forgiven someone who wronged me twenty-five years ago.” It can take 25 years to forgive someone who really hurt us; it can take a lifetime; perhaps it can take even longer than a lifetime. I don’t know anyone who is really good at it, and that includes me. In fact, I think I’m especially bad at it. This may be more than you want to know about me, but I believe there are two kinds of anger: I call them “fast burn” and “slow burn.” People whose anger is “fast burn” lose their temper quickly but then they also get over it quickly. People whose anger is “slow burn” don’t lose their temper quickly or easily; it takes a lot to get them riled up. But when they get angry, they stay angry. I’m embarrassed to admit that my anger is the “slow burn” variety. It takes a lot to get me angry, but when I do get angry, it can take a very long time for me to stop being angry and a long time for me to forgive someone who has angered me. I’ve gotten better about it, but it’s still a problem I wrestle with.

But forgiveness is not only a discipline of the Christian life, it is also an essential discipline for our well-being. Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University has done extensive research on forgiveness and claims that practicing forgiveness enhances all aspects of our health – mental, spiritual, and physical. Luskin even claims that forgiveness may help lower blood pressure and reduce stress that damages cardiac health. Luskin teaches that there are nine steps to achieve forgiveness, but I think the nine can be summarized in this way: acknowledge your feelings, choose to feel differently, don’t give away your peace of mind and self-control to the person, institution, or situation that hurt you. And keep in mind that forgiveness doesn’t not necessarily mean condoning what happened to hurt you. (For more information go to

The New Testament hints at some of the problems associated with the unwillingness to forgive. A few weeks ago the gospel reading included Jesus’ statement to Peter, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” One way to understand forgiveness is to understand it in terms of binding and loosing. However, the paradoxical thing is that when we forgive someone, we are not releasing that other person, we are releasing ourselves. We are untying the mental and spiritual knots that bind us.

One of my best friends in college was John. A few years after graduation, John did something that I found enormously offensive, and if I were to describe it, you would probably agree that it was offensive. I told John that I was offended but he not only never acknowledged that he had done anything wrong, he was unwilling to give me a hearing. The result was that we were estranged for more than a decade. Finally, at our 25th college reunion, John apologized. As soon as he did, my anger and estrangement instantly evaporated. Now, John was not the one who was bound; I was the one who was bound by my anger. I could have unbound myself at any time by forgiving John.

The trick is to distinguish between accountability and forgiveness. John needed to be held to account for what he had done, but I believe it is possible to hold someone accountable and at the same time to forgive them.

Note that Jesus did not tell Peter to forgive and forget. Sometimes, especially in intimate relationships, we need to both forgive and forget. When your spouse forgets to take out the garbage or put the top back on the toothpaste tube, then we need to forget as well as forgive. But the child or spouse who is abused needs to find a way to forgive or at least let go of the anger, but they do not, indeed they must not forget. In fact, healing begins with remembering things that have long been forgotten.

Near the exit from the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem is a sign bearing a quotation from a 17th century Jewish mystic: “Remembrance is the path to redemption but forgetfulness is the path to exile.” We don’t have to forget the harmful things that people have done for us, and it20may be necessary to remember them in order to heal them. Indeed, forgetting them, sweeping them under a mental carpet, can make it possible for the perpetrators to harm us or others again. But we also don’t have to hang on to the feelings that those harmful events caused.

It is interesting that this gospel reading comes at the end of the week when we remembered the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Can we forgive those terrorists? Can we forgive Al Qaida? Can we forgive Osama bin Laden?

I believe that forgiving and also holding people accountable are perfectly compatible. I believe that in some sense all Americans, perhaps even all civilized people, were attacked on 9/11. But I also believe it is possible to forgive them. Forgiving does not mean excusing or condoning but it does mean operating from a position of love, not anger. However, the loving thing to do may be to do whatever is necessary to bring terrorists to justice and prevent them from harming others.

One of the best portrayals of the power of forgiveness I’ve ever seen is the film Dead Man Walking. In it we see two couples who are quite understandable filled with rage at a man who murdered their children and they are even angry at the nun who becomes his spiritual advisor. It powerfully illustrates the truth that the inability or unwillingness to forgive binds us, ties us up in knots that only we can untie. Thefilm also illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding about capital punishment. The two couples want their children’s murderer executed because they believe it will bring them peace of mind and heart and in some way will right the wrong of their children’s murder. But there are some wrongs so great that I don’t believe they can ever be made right on this side of heaven, and I doubt that capital punishment has ever brought anyone peace of mind and heart.

Now, even though I am personally opposed to capital punishment, I believe that it may be possible to forgive someone and still believe that the only proper punishment for their crime is to have their life taken from them. What is wrong and indeed contrary to the spirit of Christ is to seek revenge. Capital punishment may be the most appropriate punishment for a small number of crimes, but it must be understood as a penalty imposed by the legal system. It must under no circumstances be understood as a way of righting a terrible wrong or an act of revenge. What brings us peace of mind and heart is forgiveness – letting go of our feelings of hurt and angry and revenge and trying to practice love.

The story is told of a young Roman Catholic seminarian who was verbally and emotionally abused by the head of his seminary. Finally, the head of the seminary expelled him and forced him out of the seminary on a dark, cold, and snowy evening. The seminarian seethed with rage toward this man for years. Once when he was telling the story of this man’s cruelty to an old, wise priest for the millionth time, the older priest said, “My son, you must forgive him.” The young man said, “Oh, yeah, sure… you don’t know what I’ve been through. You don’t know ….” The older priest interrupted him, “What I mean is this. When you say your prayers, say, ‘Heavenly Father, please kill this man who has so cruelly mistreated me.’ And keep on praying that prayer until God changes the prayer to ‘Heavenly Father, forgive him.’”

Be honest with God about your feelings. Pray for your enemies, even if the prayer starts out with “Dear God, please kill them.” But keep on praying and try to change your prayer and your behavior by learning to practice love toward those who have harmed you or harmed someone close to your heart. Henri Nouwen once said that forgiveness is the name we give to the kind of love practiced by people who love poorly and the truth is that all of us love poorly. And because we love poorly not only do we need to forgive others, it is an indisputable fact that there are lots of others who need to forgive us, too.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Gospel of the God who is with us (Proper 18A) (Sept. 7, 2008)

Text: Matthew 18.20: “...where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt 18.20)

If it were up to me, I would give Matthew’s gospel a new title. “The Gospel according to St. Matthew” has an impressive dignity, weight, even majesty, about it, but it just isn’t very catchy. I would re-christen Matthew’s gospel as “The God Who Is With Us”.

Matthew’s gospel begins with the story of Joseph’s mysterious and troubling dream in which an angel prophesied that Mary’s child was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that a child would be born to a young woman and that the proper name for that child would be “Emmanuel”, God with us. (Mt 1.23) Matthew ends with the Risen Christ’s promise to his disciples, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28.20) And in the very heart of Matthew’s gospel is Jesus’ great promise that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he is there among them. (Mt 18.20)

“The virgin shall... bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.... God is with us”.

“Remember, I am with you always...”

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The Gospel of the God who is with us.

I want to focus on the three parts of Matthew’s great theme: God is with us.

First, it is GODwho is with us. When one of you enters the hospital for surgery, you certainly want your family to be there, and you would probably like to have one of the parish clergy there. It’s comforting when a friend or family member promises us, “It’s OK; I’m here for you”. But Matthew’s promise is of a different magnitude altogether. It is the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible who promises to be by our side.

But do we really want to take God up on his promise? Having the Almighty at our side might be more terrifying than comforting.

Annie Dillard famously asked, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does not one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares: they should lash us to our pews.”

The God who promises to be with us is like TNT – a source of infinite but uncontrollable power. The God who promises to be with us loves us unconditionally, but God also invites us to take up our cross and follow him, to lose our lives for the sake of the Kingdom. Along with the comfort and assurance we receive from God comes the demand of discipleship.

Secondly, God promises to be WITH us.

Anthropologists tell us that different cultures have different ideas of the appropriate space between persons. It’s a bit of a generalization, but people in Mediterranean cultures often talk very animatedly almost nose to nose. Northern Europeans (and most North Americans) prefer a little more distance.

The God who promises to be with us appears to be more Mediterranean than northern European. This is a God who does not maintain a polite distance. This God promises to be with us, to be in our midst, to be among us. This is a God we cannot keep at arm’s length. This is a God who is closer than our next breath.

God does not say to us, “I’ll be right over here if you need me. Just give me a shout.” This is not a God to whom we can say good bye at the end of today’s service and leave in church until next week. This is not a God who will leave us alone.

Francis Thompson’s great poem, “The Hound of Heaven” speaks of this God who does not maintain a safe, polite distance:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind: and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

And it ends:

Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”

Finally, the God of Matthew’s gospel promises to be with US.

God promises to be with us, with frail, fallible human beings. This may be the most remarkable part of Matthew’s theme.

It would make more sense if God promised to be with the stars in the Milky Way. That would make sense to us. God, after all, is majestic, splendid, all-powerful, and all-knowing. We would expect God to inhabit the vast reaches of space. It might make sense if God promised to be in the crashing waves of the ocean. To paraphrase the prophet Elijah’s great insight, God is not in the earthquake, fire, and whirlwind; God is in the still, small voice, and in that frailest of all vessels – the human heart.

God promises to be with us. Now note something very important here. The “us” God promises to be with in today’s gospel, indeed throughout Matthew’s gospel is plural. That is not to say that God is not with us when we are alone, but the promise, the assurance, the certainty of God’s promise, is to us not individually, but corporately. “...where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt 18.20)

That’s a hard saying for many of us, including myself. I tend to be a loner. I want to do things on my own. We live in a culture that is individualist to the Nth degree. But God tells us to come together and promises that when we do come together under his banner and in Jesus’ name, that he will be with us.

The reason that God makes this promise to us corporately is that it is only through others that we are able to receive love from God and offer love to God. Jesus’ great promise to be present wherever two or three are gathered in his name is prefaced by a discussion of what to do when a member of the community hurts or offends another member. Jesus was nothing if not realistic. Even the community gathered in his name and experiencing his presence will be a place of conflict. We know that all too well. But he tells us to come together anyway.

“...where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt 18.20) God is among us, because corporately we are Christ’s body, the sacrament of Christ’s presence in the world. Perhaps C.S. Lewis put it best when he wrote: “There are no ordinary people You have never met a mere mortal... Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ... the glorifer and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”

The message of Matthew’s gospel is so simple, I can sum it up in three phrases: GOD promises to be with us; God promises to be WITH us; God promises to be with US. Amen.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Thank goodness for pushy women - Proper 15A - Aug. 17, 2008

I suspect that “pushy” women do an enormous amount of the work that keeps the world going. One very popular pushy woman is Baroness Thatcher of Grantham, the first woman to serve as Britain’s Prime Minister. In the late 1980s, Mrs. Thatcher was often criticized for being “school-marmish” and “hectoring.” But if she were a man, wouldn’t they admire her for being decisive and forceful?

Today’s gospel reading includes a story about a woman most of us would probably characterize as pushy, and perhaps aggressive and obnoxious, too. Matthew tells us that Jesus “went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.” Tyre and Sidon were in or near present-day Lebanon, an area occupied mostly by Gentiles. Word of Jesus' visit somehow got out, and a woman of the region came to Jesus seeking help for her daughter who was possessed by a demon. Matthew identifies her as a "Canaanite." He does not tell us how often she came to Jesus with her request or what she said initially, but Matthew tells us that she cried out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.” Matthew also implies that she came to Jesus at least twice and to his disciples at least once.

Sermons on this text generally spend most of their time trying to justify Jesus’ grossly insulting rebuke to this nameless woman: “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But Jesus does not need us to defend him, and even if we wanted to defend Jesus, there’s no way to do it. However, it’s worth noting that God became incarnate not only in a person but also in a culture, and here Jesus gives voice to two of the most fundamental prejudices of his culture: Jewish men did not speak to or allow themselves to be spoken to by women in public, and observant Jews tried to minimize their contact with Gentiles. First Corinthians 14:34 expresses the standard attitude of Jewish men toward women in public places: they are to be “silent.”

By far the most interesting person in this story is the nameless Gentile woman who didn’t mind being pushy and who cleverly turned Jesus’ insult to her own advantage. There are two ways to look at her. First, let’s try to see her as Jesus and the disciples must have seen her: unpleasant, annoying, and impossible to get rid of. She wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. “Don’t call us; we’ll call you” would not have satisfied her. If you put her on hold and hoped she would eventually hang up, you would have been disappointed.

Now, let’s try to see her more objectively. Sometimes being pushy, aggressive, and annoying is the only way to get things done. Sometimes in hindsight we can see that “pushy,” “aggressive,” and “annoying” were just other words for “courage,” “persistence,” and “determination,” and that is we ought to see the woman in today’s Gospel reading. She defied social conventions. In Jesus’ world, women were expected to be more or less invisible and silent, but in spite of any number of spoken and unspoken cultural assumptions, the Canaanite woman would not be silent and persisted in seeking healing for her daughter.

Another famous “pushy” woman was the late Rosa Parks. On her way home from work in Montgomery, Alabama, in December of 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus and sat in the last seat reserved for “colored people.” When a white passenger boarded at the next stop, the bus driver demanded that Ms. Parks yield her seat to the white passenger. Parks refused and was arrested. But the simple act of refusing to give up her seat had a profound effect on history. It launched a boycott that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to international prominence, and it was the beginning of the civil rights movement that did so much to secure basic human rights that had long been denied to African Americans.

Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat may have had influence far beyond her time and country. In the waning days of the Soviet Union, reactionaries sought to reverse the process of democratization by overthrowing the Soviet leader, Gorbachev. During the tense days of the attempted coup the world watched as Moscow’s mayor, Boris Yeltsin, literally stood up to tanks attempting to disperse the Soviet parliament. When asked what inspired him to face down tanks, Yeltsin said that he was inspired by Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement in Poland. When Walesa was asked what inspired him, he said that he had long admired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, civil rights campaigns. When Dr. King was asked what inspired him, he said that he admired Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat. Is it possible that Rosa Parks’ defiance of injustice helped bring down the Soviet Union?

So although I'd like to give at least one and a half cheers for pushy women, being pushy is not enough. You also need to know whom to push. The Canaanite woman went to the one person who could command the demonic spirit to leave her daughter and restore the girl to soundness of mind: Jesus.

This story shows Jesus in the worst possible light, so why did Matthew include it? Maybe it’s in the Gospel to encourage us. Like the Canaanite woman, we often come to Jesus with desperate needs: we’re out of work and need a job, or someone we love is dying, or someone has just shattered our heart. Like the nameless woman, we may pray to God day and night but find no relief. But more than likely, we pray about something once or twice and then forget about it. It’s difficult to explain why God hears and answers some prayers and seems to leave others unanswered. But God seems to expect us to be persistent in our prayers (maybe even a little pushy) and come back again and again.

The final thing we should notice about the Canaanite woman is the nature of her request. Begging Jesus to free her daughter from demonic power was no idle, off-hand petition. The woman was not asking for a trip to Cancun or a new car: she was seeking justice.

Thank goodness for pushy women and even pushy men. Thank goodness for people who defy social conventions in their quest to right wrong. But above all, thank goodness for those who kneel at Jesus’ feet day and night and pray without ceasing. Thank goodness for women and men who seek justice and will not accept “no” for an answer – even when the “no” seems to come from God.